A customer of mine loaned me a fascinating book that has answered several of my questions as it pertains to understanding customer behavior. The Culture Code (Clotaire Rapaille) is an explanation of why people around the world live and buy as they do. The author shows why we think the way we do about beauty, health, money, work, and especially my interest, food. If you are a marketer of goods, I recommend this one highly.

What makes this book of value is the simplicity of his thesis. He seeks to summarize behavior, regardless of culture, into a one-word code, that is easy to grasp. Rapaille says that this code is not random, but a result of the influences that have shaped our culture in order to survive to the next generation.

Of particular note, he describes the American culture code for food is FUEL. When I read his explanation this word picture, a number of things I experience in the restaurant business immediately fell into place.

Americans approach food as fuel that will fill them up so they can move on to the next activity. In the same way we want our gasoline, cheap and abundant, so also we want our food. Our decisions about what we eat are based on sheer economics (where can I get it the cheapest?), not on quality (I can’t really tell a difference.) Travel down the highway and your need for food and fuel are combined in the same stop. Food vendors are found inside and alongside gas stations so you can fill up both tanks, quickly and inexpensively, and promptly get back on the road toward your destination.

The construct of the American all-you-can-eat buffet is consistent with this notion. Quality of product is not as important as quantity. If I want the gauge to read FULL, a buffet is an efficient means to that end. Note that every time you go back through the line to fill another plate, you refer to as a “trip.” Food is our fuel, which is why the concept of our restaurant goes against this code.

Contrast this relationship of Food-as Fuel with the author’s explanation of the code in France, which would be PLEASURE. The French take more time to eat, more time to prepare and would never think of creating an all-you-can-eat situation that puts quantity over quality. To them, this would not be pleasurable, but instead, vulgar. Why cheapen the experience, and thereby diminish the pleasure? This is why much of our appreciation and education of fine cuisine stems from the kitchens in France. Go to the top chefs in America and you will most certainly find an understanding and foundation of French cooking. Even the title “chef,” originates with the French.

I must keep this in mind when I hear a complaint about portion size, or “can we get this to go?” The food I produce is not intended to be fuel, but pleasure. But if the average customer is responding on code, pleasure is not the first concern.

If you are a reader, and a regular customer of mine, the next time you come in, see if this explanation sheds any new light on what we are trying to accomplish.

Going off code

One thought on “Going off code

  • May 14, 2011 at 1:04 am

    Isn't this a shame! I live in Sonoma, CA where food is truly a pleasurable experience. I think the local population demands it and the restaurants deliver to reflect this demand. However, through my travels in the US, I think the Author's analysis proves correct. Recently I had to spend a few weeks in Arlington, TX for my work. Finding decent, healthy, and well prepared food was challenging (as in non-existant). The local restaurants provided barely adequate food, served in heaping portions which seemed to please the local patrons. I was so happy to return to California.

    Congratulations on your efforts to reverse the tide!

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